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Tokaji Wine – What We Know About One of the World’s Oldest Dessert Wines

The Italian wine industry offers wines for every taste and occasion. From sumptuous red wines that are perfect for enjoying beside a nice warm fire to beautiful whites that refresh you on hot summer days, you’ll always find an Italian wine that suits your tastes.

But what if you want to look beyond Italy?

Of course, there are many other countries that produce wine. France, Spain, the United States, and Australia rank amongst them.

But Hungary?

Most people don’t know that Hungary has a rich history with wine, both as an importing country and as a country that creates some wonderful wine products. But when it comes to dessert wines, in particular, Hungary may hold claim to producing the oldest dessert wine in existence.

That wine is named Tokaji and this article explores it.

What is Tokaji Wine?

Let’s start with the basics.

Tokaji wine, also known as Tokay, is produced in Hungary’s Tokaj wine region. This UNESCO-protected region actually extends from Hungary and into Slovakia, though most recognize the wine it produces as a Hungarian creation.

The region produces several wines, though it’s most known for exceptionally sweet wines produced using grapes undergoing noble rot. This process of making wines is so famous in Hungary that the “nectar” extracted from the Tokaji region’s grapes is even mentioned in the Hungarian national anthem.

The wine comes in four key styles:

  1. Aszu
  2. Eszencia
  3. Szamorodni
  4. Forditas and Maslas

Aszu variants are created using a blend of the noble rot grapes and standard wine must, creating a beautiful wine that has a potential alcohol volume of 19%, though most versions reach 9%. Depending on the wine you choose, the bottle may have between 60 and 450 grams of sugar, with the latter obviously being sweeter and having a higher alcohol volume.

Next up is Eszencia, which is made solely using the noble rot juices that run from the grape. As this wine undergoes very little processing, it relies almost solely on its natural sugars. As such, each litre contains 450 grams of sugar, making it very sweet. But it only achieves an alcohol volume of 3%.

Szamorodni is similar to Aszu in that it combines grapes undergoing noble rot with those that aren’t. However, its production methods are far less precise, with producers essentially grouping their grapes together without paying too much attention to which is which. These wines vary from the sweet Edes, which has about 45 grams of sugar per litre, to the dry Szoraz, clocking in at 9 grams per litre.

Finally, both Forditas and Maslas are made using grape must, pomace, or wines blended with the dead yeasts left over from Aszu production.

Despite having so many versions, Aszu is the one most are referring to when they speak about Tokaji wine. With its varying sugar levels, Aszu is a wine that can be tailored to the drinker’s tastes, with the richest versions serving almost as desserts on their own.

The History of Tokaji Wine

We mentioned earlier that Tokaji wines are amongst the oldest dessert wines in the world. Of course, there is a story behind this claim. And that story takes us back to the 17th century, with the invasion of the Ottoman army into Hungary.

According to the story, a woman named Zsuzsanna Lórántffy discovered the noble rot used to make these wines. As the wife of Prince György Rákóczi I, she was married to one of Hungary’s largest landowners. Together, the couple maintained extensive vineyards used to craft traditional wines.

With the invasion of the Ottoman empire imminent, Zsuzsanna elected to postpone the grape harvest until the family was properly prepared. By the time she got around to harvesting her grapes, she saw they’d turned into shrivelled raisins.

After a moment of contemplation, she decided to use those raisins to make wine anyway. The shrivelled grapes produced some extraordinarily sweet wines, leading to the creation of the Aszu variation of Tokaji wines in the process.

There is some consternation regarding exactly when the wine was created. According to Miles Lambert-Gócs’ book “Tokaj Wine: Fame, Fate, Tradition”, most accounts state that the wine was invented in 1620. However, some claim it to be earlier, though these claims don’t align as readily with the legend surrounding the wine. What we do know is that production has increased by the middle of the 17th century, as records exist of an export of Aszu wine to Poland in 1646. By 1655, a law was in place that required the separate harvest of the botrytized shrivelled raisins used in the wine’s production.

Those who dispute the legend tell us that there are records of an Aszu grape wine dating back to 1571, as they were part of a property deal that clearly listed both the type of grape and the fact they’d been kept separate from the property’s other grapes.

Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that Tokaji wines were the first to make use of the noble rot technique. Even if we are to believe the legends, the Hungarians still come out over 100 years ahead of German, whose Rhine-based producers didn’t master the concept of nobly rotting grapes until the later 18th century.

The Final Word

Hungary may not have the extensive history that Italy has in the world of wine. It also doesn’t produce the sheer volume or variety of wines that Italy produces. But what it can lay claim to is being the first country to both discover and master the concept of noble rot. In the various Tokaji wines, Hungary has a national delicacy that is so important that its citizens sing about it when demonstrating their national pride.

If you’re searching for a tasty dessert wine to enjoy as Christmas draws closer, you could do far worse than Tokaji wine. And to help you get your hands on it, the Xtrawine collection features several examples for you to enjoy.

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